Your Handy Dandy Guide to the Kentucky Derby, Part I

The Todd

The Todd. He's the one in front. Looking particularly Toddish.

In years prior I’ve sent out an illustrated e-mail to friends and family who don’t keep up with the Derby to give them a shorthand version of what stories to be aware of and what horses to watch for. This year’s version will be even shorter than usual. Here it is: BLLLAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH…….

I just don’t see the usual compelling Derby story taking shape. However, in the absence of a compelling story, there is a dominant theme. And that theme is dominance.

One trainer, one horse and one stable will dominate this year’s Derby with numbers if nothing else. WinStar Farm could set a record for number of entries with four – American Lion, Endorsement, Super Saver and Rule. Meanwhile, dominanting the training ranks is Todd Pletcher, who could saddle 15 horses for this year’s Derby. Okay, not 15. But a lot. I’m not even sure how many. Like WinStar, he may also set a record this year.  Known amongst my friends as “The Todd,” an homage to the Scrubs character who couldn’t be less like the oh-so-stiff Pletcher, the super trainer has led over 20 horses to the saddling paddock on the First Saturday in May and has never won. (He has won a Classic, though, with the memorable filly Rags to Riches in the Belmont.) Among his charges is the favorite, Eskendereya, who will dominate the bettors’ wallets. In the end, the 2010 Derby may boil down to a very simple story indeed – is Eskendereya the real deal? If he is, then we may have a compelling Triple Crown after all.

Along with the standard 126 lbs, Eskendereya will be saddled with The Todd's losing and streak and Zayat's karma.

Along with the standard 126 lbs, Eskendereya will be saddled with The Todd's losing streak and Zayat's karma.

Undefeated on dirt, Eskendereya destroyed his competition in the Fountain of Youth and then the Wood Memorial. A heavily muscled colt, he does not give the impression of stamina, but he’s bred to go the distance and had no problems with a 1 1/8 miles. This reminds me of another chestnut colt, whose name begins with S and ends with ecratariat, but it’s poor form to ever make a comparion to the Meadow Stable star. He’s ridden by The Todd’s mainstay jockey, the excellent John Velazquez. Unfortunately, he is owned by world class moron/chauvinist Ahmed Zayat. Pay attention. He will say at least one egregiously stupid and/or insulting thing before the Triple Crown is over. Zayat, by the way, was the idiot who led an actual conspiracy in an attempt to block Rachel Alexandra from entering last year’s Preakness. When caught he threw the new guy (Mine That Bird’s owner) under the bus and then started talking about Eight Belles, because PETA didn’t have enough fun with that the first time around. Thanks, Zayat. That was awesome.

But Eskendereya is not the only horse in the race! Let’s look at two other strong contenders!

Sidney’s Candy – Named after Jenny Craig’s dead husband, Sid – although I’m not sure if he was already dead before the horse was named or what – Sidney’s Candy is the a very quick son of Candy Ride. To be honest, I don’t find Sidney’s Candy very inspiring. I think this is likely due to his name being Sidney’s Candy. But, my prejudice against his name aside, the horse has done nothing wrong. He is trained by Southern California veteran conditioner John Sadler and ridden by the wunderkind Joe Talamo. Last year Joe was on the Derby favorite, I Want Revenge, but the horse was scratched the morning of the race. Joe is back this year on a horse that should be third choice. One thing about Sidney’s Candy – he closes. And if you’re going to win a Derby, you need a horse who can close. It would be no surprise to see the roses over Sidney’s Candy’s withers this year.

Lookin' at Lucky

The very kind and loving Lucky.

Lookin’ At Lucky – the most inappropriately named horse in the field. Trained by silver-haired comedian Bob Baffert and owned by Bob’s old friend Mike Pegram (the team that brought you 1998 Derby winner Real Quiet), Lucky has a talent for finding traffic trouble. He’s a hard trying horse and always finds a way to keep coming. He is ridden by Garret Gomez, a former superstar who has made a successful comeback after an extended hiatus (it took awhile for him to put every last dollar up his nose). Gomez has not only reached his previous level of success, he has surpassed it. It has taken him a tremendous amount of work to get sober and work his way back to the top  – it would be nice to see it rewarded.

One Final Note – There is another place in this year’s Derby where the theme of dominance comes to the fore – this year’s edition is overwhelmingly dominated by horses who win on the lead. The first turn is always crowded, but this year I wouldn’t be surprised to see some horses floated 8 wide. A supposed knock on Eskendereya is his need for the lead. Frankly, I don’t see it. I think he’ll be happy to stalk. That said, if there’s one horse in the race who has shown he can come from anywhere it’s the supremely versatile Lookin’ at Lucky.

I’ll be making additional posts as the Derby gets closer to highlight intriguing longshots, horses who are relishing the Churchill surface, and other odds and ends.

A Young Priest and an Old Priest

Toby

This is not Toby. This is the cat that was buried in the Pet Semetery. Toby is the cat that came out of this cat's grave. The external appearance remains very similar.

My mother-in-law is in an abusive relationship.

The cycle is classic. A spark of violence, resolution to change, followed by capitulation to the same old tricks – sweet promises of love and peace.

Her abuser is an extraordinarily handome, very large male, with a bountiful white coat, marked by occasional dark tabby patches. His name is Toby, and he is a cat.

You have to understand, my mother-in-law’s heart is the size of Texas. She possesses the virtues of patience, kindness, and empathy. I mean, she puts up with me, for crying out loud. For his part, Toby is a swashbuckling feline, always up for adventure in the great outdoors. If he were a human, Free Bird would be prominent amongst his playlist favorites. The world is too small for Toby, or perhaps he’s just too big to be constrained. He’s a cat with one life to live. Much like Steven Tyler, he doesn’t want to miss a thing.

This headstrong and impestuous nature, combined with brawny brute strength, makes Toby a formidable opponent when he feels his will is being thwarted. I have experienced this firsthand, most memorably when I picked up Toby from being shaved down for summer. His luxurious coat leaves him prone to mats, and while he has since come to a peace with brushing, at the time he wouldn’t abide it. My mother-in-law had dropped him off at the vets in the morning, I’d agreed to pick him up in the afternoon.

A college kid was in the lobby with me. The vet tech behind the desk pulled Toby’s file and her eyes widened. She told us that Toby had been “difficult.” She said this in such a way that we understood her to mean Toby had nearly killed five people before a tranq gun usually reserved for Great White Sharks was employed to calm him.  The college kid’s eyes widened. I played into this, adding to the story of Toby. The college kid looked like a sixth grader listening to a camp fire ghost story.

And that’s when the growls started.

But really, “growls” doesn’t do it justice. Imagine the sound of a demon immersed in Holy Water. It was like that, but worse.  And it was coming closer.

“Is that him?” the college kid asked, awe in his voice.

“Yes,” I said. “He’ll be here any moment.”

Along with the demonic growls, thrashing and thumping could be heard. Closer and closer it came, and finally Toby was revealed in all his Dark Glory. The vet tech carred his ginormous pet carrier. Or at least, she tried to. As Toby unleashed his hellish wrath upon its plastic walls and metal bars, the entire thing rocked back and forth, its momentum pulled the vet tech hither and yon, she looked like nothing so much as a drunken sailor. The college kid’s jaw hung wide like a door somebody forgot to close.

“That,” I said, “is Toby.”

On the way over to my mother-in-law’s place Toby continued to speak in a variety of tongues and even showed off by speaking English backwards. I was not swayed into fear, not until I reached the house. Just how, I thought, am I going to release this animal? Do I open the front door and dump him right there? But what if he slips out? Do I put his cage as far from the front door as possible and then run? But what if he catches me? I am very slow. He might catch me.

I listened to my inner Aristotle and went for the middle. I placed Toby’s cage in the middle of the hallway, and, ninja-like, unlatched the cage door. And then I ran for it, Toby hot on my heels. I could feel his flame breath on my feet. Close. Closer. “Oh, God! No! He’s going to get me!” I thought. I slipped out the front door and closed it. WHAM! I heard the sound the Toby collide with the door. He’d just missed his prey.

It’s not hard to imagine what would have happened if he’d caught me. Here is a quote from my mother-in-law. “I was late for work today. I had to stop the bleeding before I left.” (True story.)

All of this said, Toby really does love my mother-in-law. He is usually affectionate, and, as he gets older, he’s calmed and settled as older cats do. She found him when he was just a kitten, out in the middle of nowhere, quite possibly dropped off by someone, although it’s impossible to say how he got out there. He can be a charmer, plays fetch, and is very intelligent.  But even though reaching adulthood has mellowed him, Toby is still not a cat to cross. He is lucky to have an owner who loves him for who he is. My mother-in-law has had practice with such matters. As evidenced by this blog post.

Church Giggles

This last Easter I had the honor of attending my goddaughter’s baptism. It was a beautiful occasion marked by good friends, family, lovely weather, a wonderful service and a horrible case of the church giggles. The church giggles is a malady that can strike during any solemn occasion; its purview extends far beyond the boundaries of the religious. This, however, was a classic case, its presentation an example of the most common symptoms. The disease caught hold when the father of my goddaughter turned to me and began a sales pitch on why I should leave the Catholic Church in favor of the Episcopalian. I responded, “thing is, Protestants are so evangelical.” “Not Episcopalians,” he replied. “Really?” I said. “Seems to me you’re being evangelical right now.” At which point he emitted a loud guffaw into the silent sanctuary. His wife turned to us, her eyes wide in a “what the what?” expression. And that was all she wrote. The rest of the service was spent in paroxysms of laughter. Sure, we bent our heads in a faux expression of earnest devotion. But we weren’t fooling anyone. The prayerful rarely possess shaking shoulders.

Church

The greatest comedy club on earth!

This experience took me on a journey of remembrance of other cases of the church giggles. The very first I can remember came at Holy Family in Auburn, WA. The service was nearly empty.  My mom was at home with my little brother, then just a baby. My dad nodded at a parshioner a few pews ahead of us and said, “check out Wolfman over there.” The name was apt, as the guy was flat out FURRY. My sisters and I lost it. In retrospect, I feel badly about laughing at the hirsute gentleman. He was wicked furry, though.

I had a relapse during my sister Cindy’s wedding. My mom was charged with the task of reading this passage:  “Look! Listen! There’s my lover! Do you see him coming? Vaulting the mountains, leaping the hills. My lover is like a gazelle, graceful; like a young stag, virile.” The problem with this case of the church giggles is that I was a bridesmaid, standing in front of the entire congregation. Father Jack, who I love and adore, but who also has a temper, casually walked over to me, smacked me in the back and said, “PULL IT TOGETHER.” This was impressive, as he pulled off the ALL CAPS pronouncement through clenched teeth. I proceeded to partially pull it together. It was the best I could do in the face of the line, “like a young stag, virile.”

More recently, I attended church with my sister Becky at Prince of Peace in Greer. The church is shaped like a cross, and we were over in the right hand wing, which is incidentally right next to the pulpit. Our pew was behind the pulpit steps, giving us an up close and personal view of Father Steve’s coming and going. It was as Father Steve was exiting that Becky and I simultaneously noticed a vein protruding from Father’s Steve temple. But this was no normal vein. He looked like he was about to stroke out. As he passed in front of me, no more than two feet away, I said the following: LOOK AT THAT VEIN ON HIS HEAD. I turned to Becky and her eyes were like saucers. I then said this: DID I SAY THAT IN A REGULAR VOICE? In answer, Becky bent her head in faux prayerful devotion and started laughing hysterically. I sat there, also laughing hysterically, marveling at my own stupidity. Not only did we have the church giggles, but they were contagious. The family behind us, who had heard the entire thing (how could they have missed it, given my yelling?) also got the church giggles. They spread like wildfire throughout our entire section.

In conclusion, I shall steal a line from Benjamin Franklin (in a comment originally made about beer) and repurpose it: The Church Giggles are proof that God loves us, and wants us to be happy.

Midnight Ramble

This place is made of  stories that struck me shiny and, magpie like, I lined my blog/nest with them. Today, I buzzed about Springtime happy, then caught up with the The Rejectionist. You must read her most recent post, if for no other reason than the last line is pure BRILLIANCE. In addition to the brilliant last line, I found this.  My mood thusly reoriented, I set off with my dogs for a twilight ramble around the nearest woodland pond. I will continue to ramble.

Tonight was the first warm night. My blood has thinned, and like a lizard needs a hot rock, I need the warmth to move, to live. I wasn’t the only one so affected; crickets and cicadas and frogs and toads and mockingbirds all sang a song for joy at the return of the Southern heat. The day’s hot sun set the smells free, too. Spicy onion grass, sweet fruit blossom and juicy fresh cut grass mingled along with the rising scent of asphalt on my street. But they were just a prelude for the pond, which has sat cold and flavorless throughout the long winter. Somehow I’d forgotten the way a pond smells during the summer, and once having met it again, I couldn’t believe I’d misplaced the memory.

I let Tom Foolery and Shenanigans off leash and they raced off, kicking up dust behind them. Even the dirt smelled alive. A fish leapt and landed with a splash. I’ve never actually seen one leap. I only ever see the ripples. For all I know it could be tiny aliens falling from the sky and landing in the pond, but I go ahead and presume it’s fish jumping.

Magic nights don’t come along everyday, and this one took me back to the best one of all. I thought about a night, a year and a half ago now, and how I wish I could tell its story. I’ve tried, many times. It started with a black man singing the blues as he walked down Queen Street. In the middle there was Ray Charles’ “What I’d Say” on a turntable in a ramshackle house covered in kudzu. It’s doors and windows were open. Red paisley sheets hung in the spaces, shining red-gold from the light and the music inside. It ended with a walk past the horse pasture on Main Street. It was true night by then, only the faintest bit of blue on the horizon. The horses, as they always do, felt something in the air. I watched them trot and snort and toss their heads, as they cast strange silhouettes up on the hillside. In between I saw a cloud of swallows erupt from the green metal roof of a rotting house, long since abandoned, along with bullfrogs and dogs and all sorts of things. It’s probably the best night I’ve ever known, and I don’t think I’ll ever do it justice.

But tonight wasn’t too shabby. I’ll take it. I wonder, what would a woman do without two dogs and some woods at hand? I suppose the question is particular to me. What would this woman do without two dogs and some woods at hand? It would be a lesser life to live.

Mutton Bustin’

Jake

Number 519, about to bust some mutton... with swagger.

Many moons ago, my mom was a rootin’, tootin’ would-have-been cowgirl growing up in Idaho. Would-have-been because, despite her all encompassing desire, her parents would not get her a horse. Despite living on acreage and being comfortably well off. And this is why, despite not living on much acreage and sometimes having financial difficulties because of it, my sisters and I did have horses. And it is because of my mother’s Idaho roots that we grew up watching rodeo, specifically bullriding.

This tradition has passed from my sister Becky to my nephew Jake. Jake has long loved watching bullriding. Becky records bullriding at night and then he’ll watch during the day, often the same rides over and over. His favorite rides feature “beeding.” What’s beeding, you might ask? Well, for some reason, Jake has a hard time putting the “L” in that word. It should be “bleeding.” “Is he beeding, Mama?” Jake will ask. A beeding cowboy is a for real cowboy, and Jake likes him some for real cowboys.  Jake also likes to ride horses. His first pony Frosty (or Froh-Froh, in Jakenenese) took Jake on many rides around the farm. He rides with good balance and no fear, just like a for real cowboy.  It is perhaps time I mentioned Jake is three, and won’t turn four until late October.

Yesterday, Jake and his parents, along with cousins and aunt, went to a local rodeo that featured Mutton Bustin’. Mutton Bustin’ being essentially bullriding for little kids, only on sheep. As Jake took in the spectacle he knew this was what he was made for. His cousins would be Mutton Bustin’, and, by God, so would Jake. The only thing was, the next youngest kid in the Mutton Bustin’ was six. But Jake had an all encompassing desire to be in the rodeo, much like his grandmother before him, and so my sister signed him up and got him a number.

As they waited in line Becky’s eyes grew wide at the sight of so many children crying, scared to bust some mutton. “Are you sure you want to do this, Jake?” she’d ask. “It’s okay, Mama,” Jake would reply. “It’s okay.” Children were leaving the arena bruised and bloody. “Jake, look at these kids,” Becky said, “see how they’re scraped up?” “That’s okay, Mama, that’s okay.” “You’re going to hit the ground hard, Jake!” “That’s okay, Mama, that’s okay.”

Finally, it was Jake’s turn. Jake’s dad, Brent, watched from the stands, where he had the opportunity to hear the announcer comment on Jake’s pending ride. “What kinda Mama puts their baby in the Mutton Bustin’?” the announcer asked. No doubt Brent attempted to look inconspicuous. Becky did not hear the announcer, as she was down in the belly of the beast, in the chutes and gates from which the rodeo operates. Jake got on his sheep in the for real bull riding chute. He was ready to go, and he was fearless.

Off Jake went, riding his sheep beautifully. He rode the sheep to the 8 second mark, earning a score of 65. He then continued to ride his sheep until it stopped. He stayed on the sheep until the ring assistants came over to him. He tried to stay on as they literally pried him off of his sheep. Jake was just getting started with his Mutton Bustin’. Ultimately, his score was good for a middle of the pack finish, placing him ahead of many children far older. While he didn’t win, being a three year old with a score of 65 was enough to turn him into a celebrity of sorts at the rodeo, with several strangers coming up to give him high-fives. Jake took his rock star turn as his due. After all, he’s always known he was a for real cowboy, it just took the rest of the world awhile to catch-up.